Today I sat with six Tibetan women, three of them nuns, and we spent several hours conversing in English. McLeod Ganj, the small town I’m in, is home to thousands of Tibetan refugees. Many of them are eager to learn English, and so every day at the Tibetan Hope Center, western volunteers and Tibetan refugees meet up and practice conversational English for several hours.
We sat in a small room with three beds. Most of the refugees live in these dorm-style rooms, with little privacy and less space. But we were comfortable and had fun, and the two hours flew by. They asked me about Australia, the USA, Barack Obama, and whether or not Americans supported Tibet. I told them that all over Seattle, and in many other parts of our country, people wear ‘Free Tibet’ tee-shirts, and put the same bumper stickers on their cars. They were happy to hear that, clapping their hands, and thanking me again and again. I asked them about how Tibetans were treated in Lhasa, the capitol of Tibet, and they said the Chinese are very brutal.
We practiced conversational English, and I taught them some new words they didn’t know. We discussed “heaven,” and “reincarnation,” and I loved watching them take meticulous notes, and then repeat the words and phrases after me in growing excitement, their voices rising, their hands keeping time on their legs. We all big smiles on our faces once they would nail a phrase, after perhaps the fifth or sixth group chorus. “Do you believe in reincarnation?” they would shout, their intonation decidedly Eastern. Their accents and their enthusiasm reminded me of a group of eager Japanese exchange students.
One of the nuns told me that she was hoping to be reborn as a monk in her next life, so that she might attain enlightenment. Despite Buddhism’s many strokes of brilliance, their doctrine says that only monks are capable of achieving nirvana, or enlightenment. According to this principle, nuns, no matter how pious they are, cannot hope to reach enlightenment in this life, but must strive to be reborn as a monk, so they have a better chance the next time around. The expression on my face made it clear what I thought about that particular caveat, and all of the women began laughing. “So you are a nun so that you can be reborn as a monk in your next lifetime?” I repeated, and the nun nodded her head. “And you?” I asked the next woman. “What do you want to be in your next lifetime?” She thought about it, and pulled on a strand of her long hair. She looked at the bald-headed nuns and said, “I want to be a nun!”
We went around the circle, and all of the women told me what they wanted to be in their next lifetime. They had noble aspirations, from “Being peace and saving all sentient beings,” to “Release! No more life!” (“No more life“ sounds strange, but it’s simply another term for ‘nirvana’, release from the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that is a tenet of Buddhist belief). Then they asked me what I wanted to be. I was surprised, and unprepared to answer. I’ve never really thought about what I want to be in my next life, should my soul be born again. I had to think about it for a minute. All eyes were on me. I thought, A nun? No, I don’t think so. A bird? Well, maybe. Enlightened? Shit, that’s kind of scary! “Heaven,” I finally said. “I want to be reborn into Heaven.” There were lots of “ahhhhs!” and solemn head nods. Then I added, “And I want all of my friends and family to be there, too!” They nodded more vigorously, an air of unanimous approval all around.
Then I asked them if they thought Obama was cute, and they all started giggling wildly.